As a holistic health coach, there is one question I am constantly asked – “How much exercise do I really need to do?”
Obviously, this largely depends on your health & fitness goals. The answer to this question will be very different if you simply want to ward off ill health and maintain your day-to-day fitness, compared to wanting to lose weight/gain strength/run a marathon.
According to Australia’s national exercise guidelines (applicable to adults aged 18-64), 150 to 300 minutes of “moderate intensity” physical activity, or 75 to 150 minutes of “vigorous intensity” physical activity each week (or an equivalent combination of both) should be the baseline starting point. That’s an absolute minimum of two and a half hours of moderate intensity activity, or one and a half hours of vigorous, high-intensity activity, per week to stay healthy. The guidelines also recommend muscle-strengthening activities at least two days per week, and to minimising the amount of time spent sitting.
“Moderate intensity” activities require some effort, but conversation is still possible. For example: brisk walking, cycling at moderate speeds, horseback riding, swimming, dancing and faster styles of Yoga and Pilates.
“Vigorous intensity” activities make you breathe harder, to the point of becoming breathless and where conversation becomes difficult. For example: Running, cycling or swimming fast, and many competitive sports.
Muscle-strengthening exercises include weightlifting, resistance training, bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups and squats, as well as many styles of Yoga and Pilates.
If a 60-minute chunk of exercise sounds intimidating or doesn’t fit with your schedule – no worries! Adults can meet the minimum physical activity requirements by adding short bursts of exercise together. Each burst should be at least 10 minutes long (a brisk walk to the kitchen or bathroom won’t quite do the trick!).
If you only have a short amount of time to exercise, you’ll get more value out of your workout if you make your exercise vigorous. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) came about for this very reason, and it is incredibly effective!
The national minimum requirements also state that we need to complete two sessions of muscle-strengthening activity each week. Our muscles regularly need to be put under load, whether by weightlifting or body weight exercises.
It is unlikely to get enough of this kind of workout from incidental activity, unless you work in a position that requires constant heavy lifting, such as a labourer or builder. This means you’ll need to actively create a muscle-strengthening routine.
For longevity with your strength routine, I recommend exploring your options, trying a whole range of exercises and activities, and finding what you enjoy the most. Some people couldn’t think of anything worse than lifting weights in a gym but love a solid, strong Yoga or Pilates workout, while others prefer just the opposite. As long as your muscles are being put under tension and strain, it counts!
The guidelines don’t say exactly how long these muscle-strengthening workouts should last, but I (as well as many other health professionals) recommend a 15 to 20-minute routine twice a week as an absolute minimum. Sticking to this religiously will prevent your muscles from disappearing completely by the time you reach 60.
The guidelines suggest being active on most – preferably all – days of the week. But, if you’re only doing two or three sessions, it’s best to spread them throughout the week.
Also recommended by the guidelines, as well as myself and other fitness professionals, is to not have any more than one day back-to-back where exercise isn’t performed. So, if you exercise on a Monday, you can skip Tuesday, but you should exercise on Wednesday.
The guidelines recommend minimising the amount of time we spend sedentary (sitting or lying down for long periods), and breaking up long periods of sitting, to help guard against a host of health issues including weight gain, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
There are simple changes we can all make to incorporate move movement into our daily routine. Here are some examples:
- If possible, walk or ride to work
- Use a standing desk
- Have a ‘walking meeting’ instead of a seated one
- Always take the stairs over the lift or elevator
- If you have a desk job, set an alarm for every half an hour to remind you to move in some way. A walk around the office or house, 10 squats, or even some stretches all count towards the daily activity target.
- If you are a TV watcher, use the ads as a reminder to move in some way. An idea is to set up gym equipment such as a treadmill in front of the TV.
The effect of exercise is extraordinarily powerful; its benefits extend far beyond weight loss and aesthetics. Exercise affects so many different health aspects: physical health, mental health, everything from diabetes to depression, from asthma to eczema.
The guidelines have looked at the effect of sitting, the effect of sleep, and the effect of physical activity. Every time, to fight disease, for quality of life, for academic performance, for physical health, for mental health, depression, stress, anxiety…physical activity has scientifically proven to be the number one key.
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